David Cesarani, Research Professor of History at Royal Holloway University of London, died at the age of 58 on 25 October 2015. The book now appears without its author, a kind of huge mausoleum for an astonishing enterprise. Cesarani wants to change our view of the Holocaust and to close the
yawning gap between popular understanding of this history and current scholarship on the subject… to challenge the traditional concepts and periodisations … the term itself.
He substitutes the ‘Final Solution’ for the Holocaust, but that Nazi term has become an alternative name for the Holocaust, which remains after 900 pages entirely unchallenged.
The first 235 pages take the persecution of Jews from the German defeat in the first world war to 1 September 1939, when Hitler’s war began. The other chapters cover the history of the war and the extermination of the Jews of Europe to 1945, and then unusually into an epilogue and conclusion. These follow the history to 1949, as the horrors of war continue for Jews, who face pogroms in Poland and expropriation in most European countries. There is also frustration for those seeking to escape the camps — now under the Allies — to Israel or the USA.
The main thrust of the argument, and its claim to novelty, rests on the attempt to deny that Nazi anti-Jewish policy was ‘systematic, consistent or even premeditated’. Nobody who has worked on German archives would deny that the Nazi state ran by a kind of ‘Hobbesian war of all against all’, as General Georg Thomas of the Wehrmacht economic section called it. There were more than a dozen competing Nazi agencies in occupied France alone, and only the Führer could adjudicate among them. Yet on the Final Solution there was no chaos. When the economic ministries complained that murdering the Jews of Ukraine — in effect, all the skilled craftsmen — would make exploitation of Ukrainian agriculture impossible, murdering of Jews continued. When SS Obergruppenführer Pohl wanted, in 1944, to protect the SS’s own diamond-cutting business in a Dutch concentration camp, still the Jewish diamond-cutters went to the gas chambers. Between 1933 and 1945, the methods used to rid society of Jews became more ambitious, but from 1919 to his death and his final will and testament, Hitler’s goal — to eradicate the parasitic and destructive ‘race’ of Jews — never wavered. The efficient German bureaucracies carried that extermination process out without any reservation or objection.
The Anschluss took place on 12 March 1938. The German occupying troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. Cesarani corrects the Sound of Music image. A spontaneous and uncoordinated popular pogrom began. Aroused crowds took the law into their own hands and assaulted, looted and humiliated the very large Viennese Jewish population. As Cesarani notes:
The occupation of Austria and the despoliation of Austrian Jews was not a linear development of Nazi Judenpolitik. The one did not lead to the other. On the contrary, by accident Vienna turned into a laboratory for the implementation of radical new ideas that, once tried and tested, were imported back to Germany.
That is simply wrong. Austrian Nazis may have been unruly thugs who stole what belonged to the German Reich, but they carried out, by mob violence, what orderly German bureaucrats would do without the mess. The most famous German legal scholars who had careers, as such, after 1945, wrote the Nuremberg Laws and explained how ‘Hitler’s will made law’. Nearly six million Jews were ‘cleansed’ from society in the midst of the greatest war in modern history without any serious opposition or any resistance by the state officials involved — a horrifying tribute to the virtues of German bureaucracy.
Cesarani’s ‘chaos’ masks the deepest evil: its orderliness, its record-keeping, its lists of the dead, its exploitation of human remains, all carefully posted in ledgers. Gold teeth extracted from corpses were counted and carried to the Reichsbank every week by SS Hauptsturmführer Bruno Melmer, head of the Amtskasse-Hauptabteilung A/II/3. (Office of the Cashier; Main Division, A/II/3). Melmer, dressed in civilian clothes, drove a small unmarked van. He delivered the gold teeth, watches, eye-glass frames and wedding rings to the Reichsbank, where they were credited to an SS account, sent to Degusa in Frankfurt, melted down and re-stamped in 12.5 kilogram bars with the seal of the Reichsbank.
The bars then went to the Swiss National Bank in Zürich, where they were exchanged for Swiss francs to finance Nazi purchases of raw materials. And so the bodily remains of victims financed the Nazi war effort in the same way as the theft of their assets, properties and household goods had done. Every transaction found its place in the great ledgers of mass murder. The greatest theft in human history left complete accounts of the crimes, written in bureaucratic prose.
Cesarani’s primary sources are entirely in English: ‘For the sake of manageability and ease of access I have restricted my references to English language texts.’ There is no evidence that Cesarani ever used any of the reports by the Wehrmacht and the SS which survived the war. Every pit-killing in Ukraine or White Russia was reported to Berlin, but all of these are in German. Certainly much is now available in English but the language of the Nazi state, which one of Cesarani’s most important witnesses, Victor Klemperer, studied as he lived under it, needs to be examined for the impersonality, the euphemisms and inhumanity of the Nazi world view.
Without German sources, the author cannot provide an explanation of the legalistic categories of German racial actions. The famous Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942, at which the Final Solution of the Jewish Question became official Nazi policy, had been requested in part by the Ministry of Occupied Eastern Territories to establish guidelines for the categories of Jews in Ukraine and Belarus, as required by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Was it legal to murder half- and quarter-Jews?
The real novelty of the book comes from the balance between victims and perpetrators, and here Cesarani makes a much more persuasive contribution. The fate of the Jews, and the development of Nazi treatment of them, play out as a counterpoint, subject to sudden shifts, as the politics before 1939 and the course of the war between 1939 and 1945 required. Vivid accounts of those who suffered, and equally lurid descriptions of those who inflicted the suffering, balance each other.
The descriptions of life in the Łodz and Warsaw ghettos reveal the existence of rich Jewish neighbourhoods, good restaurants and fancy clothes, as well as the filth, starvation and overcrowding of the masses. Emanuel Ringelblum, one of Warsaw ghetto’s chroniclers, recorded bitterly that ‘the inhumanity of the Jewish upper class has clearly shown itself’. We become familiar with the observers who kept diaries or wrote letters, and who died or disappeared as the murders continued. Cesarani has turned the numbers of victims into human stories with names. The 5,000 Christians in the Warsaw ghetto with their Christmas trees bear witness to their martyrdom. Baptism saved none of them.
Towards the end of the book Cesarani asserts that the final solution resembled the Reich war effort in 1942 — ‘ill-planned, underfunded and carried through haphazardly at breakneck speed’. That is not my view; but disagreement, so common in historiography, would normally be occasion for a vigorous dialogue. Cesarini’s untimely death has made that impossible.